It’s Never Too Late

Kate Flora: Happy Almost 2016. Many times, when I speak about the writer’s life at libraries, people come up to me after my talk and say, often mournfully, that they’ve always wanted to write, but they’ve put it off for so long that now it’s too late. The same thing happens when I teach. I respond that if writing is part of their dream, it’s never too late. Then I tell them that my mom wrote her first mystery in her eighties and published it at 83. They are often astonished, but I like to think that mom’s story gives people hope.

Here’s an interview I did with her for our local Sisters in Crime newsletter shortly before her book, The Maine Mulch Murder, was published.

It’s Never Too Late: An Interview with 83-year-old mystery newcomer A. Carman Clark

One of the hardest things for the aspiring author to deal with is rejection and the feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness that a long series of rejections can cause. Frequently, authors meet writers who, though they love the craft, have grown discouraged by the process of trying to become published and given up. As an inspiration to all of us, we talk with an 83-year-old author, A. Carman Clark.

Q. How long have you been writing?

I can’t remember when I wasn’t writing once I discovered that words on paper held thoughts and could be used and reused. I wrote down what my mother said I could do and held it as evidence when she changed her mind. Creative writing? A very romantic story, written when I was ten and illustrated by a classmate, showed me the joy of making words into scenes from my imagination. I never recovered from this creative attack.

Q. How long have you been writing mysteries?

In 1990, I outlined ideas for a series of mysteries set in a fictitious town I’d created years before. Playing with plots through 1991 led to noticing places where a body might be found from public rest rooms to behind hedges and woodpiles. I settled down to daily writing of the book in 1992, having cleared away a non-fiction project so I could give my full attention to the characters and dialogue in this village murder.

Q. How long were you trying to get the book published before you finally sold it?

My mystery began traveling out to an agent and to publishers in March, 1994. When editors made suggestions, I did rewrites to improve what they considered weaknesses when their suggestions made sense to me. The manuscript finally sold in April, 2000, after my daughter suggested that I send the book proposal to The Larcom Press.

Q. How long did it take you to write the book and how many revisions did it go through before it was accepted for publication?

I wrote MM in about nine months and did five rewrites. Didn’t change the plot but worked to make characters more fully rounded and dialogue more suited to individuals.

Q. What made you decide to write a mystery? What’s it about?

MM originated from my frustration with reading too many mysteries in which I was turned off by drugs, violence and gore, and characters I couldn’t identify with because they had more money than I could imagine. I wanted to read about ordinary folks living in a small town where everyone knew everyone else, and about the question of whether they truly knew what happened behind closed doors. When I complained to the local librarian that I couldn’t find any mysteries I liked, she challenged me to write one. So I did. My protagonist was a divorced woman in her sixties, self-employed as a copy editor, who enjoyed rural living. One day, while gathering sawdust to mulch her strawberries, she finds a body. The subsequent investigation explores family secrets and the lengths people will go to to protect them. And the story reunites Amy with her old school friend, Town Constable Dort Adams, and ignites a romance.

Q. How did it feel when you learned that a publisher wanted to buy your book?

My first thought was to cheer and celebrate the fact that my obituary wouldn’t read, “Mrs. Clark once wrote a book.” (Clark is the author of From the Orange Mailbox, a collection of her newspaper columns.) Now there would be two books and then more. I went out and ran around the house squealing in glee. My house is isolated. This didn’t disturb my neighbors. Then I went back to the computer with a new sense of confidence, whipped out my weekly column with no hesitation and went on to my next assignment as though I’d had an injection of adrenaline.

Q. Drawing on your many years of experience as a working writer, what advice would you give other writers about dealing with discouragement and rejection?

As a writer and as head of Maine Media Women’s Communications Contest for five years, I’ve counseled and advised writers to consider that rejections are often the opinion of one person. But take time to reread the book or article, and now, distanced by time, see what you’d like to change or improve. When a writer feels her story is good, it’s important to keep sending it out. Somewhere there will be an editor who will respond. Let rejections be challenges.

Q. What else would you like to say to other writers, besides hooray?

I used to hate rewriting. But since my second complete revision of MM, I’ve come to enjoy the process. I live in the village of Granton (the fictitious setting of the book) and move through it, seeing new aspects of small town life which can be incorporated into The Corpse in the Compost, my next Amy Creighton mystery. When I’m really into writing a book, I forget to eat. Writing every day from November to April is a great help in avoiding cold weather nibbling, which adds pounds. Although by statistics or publishing records, I’m a later life author, I’ve been a writer since I first discovered the magic of words, when I learned to make the right marks with pencils. On days when I’m not writing a book, I feel something missing, so I use journaling to keep me alert and to catch ideas that flit across my mind. Questioning myself lets me push away unrecognized mental limits and then move ahead in my writing.

Family Thanksgiving 1 001
Mrs. Clark with her family during Thanksgiving at the family farm

________________________
Sadly, Mrs. Clark died while she was doing a last rewrite of The Corpse in the Compost. She left behind a generation of writers inspired by her faith, her talent and her tenacity. So if you dream of writing and haven’t gotten around to it yet—it’s not too late. Make that New Year’s resolution to get going. 

Don’t Listen to Your Mother

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 11.01.57 AMIt’s Kate, and I’m talking today about teaching.

A writer has to listen. That’s what I tell my writing students. As they sit there around the table, pens poised for the wisdom that a 28-year writer might have to impart, I give them some shocking advice. Never mind what your mother told you about minding your own business, I tell them, being a writer is a license to be nosy. Okay, we might get more polite and say a license to be curious–but you know what I’m saying. I’m saying that if you want to be able to craft credible, nuanced, life-like characters in your books, you have to start paying attention to the world around you. Continue reading “Don’t Listen to Your Mother”

Writing Characters that Aren’t Like You . . .

Image

Hi, it’s Kate Flora, coming to the end of a summer of visiting Maine libraries. One of the best things about talking mystery to a library audience is the questions I get asked. So often there are questions I’ve never been asked before that make me reflect on my process, and on what I’ve learned from nearly thirty years in the writer’s chair.

Today, I’m pondering a question someone in the audience asked recently night at the Camden Public Library, where Vicki Doudera, Janis Bolster and I were appearing on a Sisters in Crime “Beach Reads” panel. The question was this: When I made the transition from writing Thea Kozak mysteries where my character is a “strong, amateur, female P.I.” to writing dark, grouchy, and decidedly male Portland detective Joe Burgess, what did I have to do to make Joe Burgess credible? To write a cop? To write a man? To write a character who has seen far too much, when I’ve spent so much of these last thirty years facing a screen and exercising my imagination? How do I go about crafting any of the characters in my books to make them seem real to a reader?

It’s a wonderful question. My first answer would be that men and women writers have always written both male and female characters. This is simply the writer’s job–to fully imagine characters like ourselves, and also blow life into the ones who are very unlike. Sex isn’t the only challenge, there is age, ethnicity, educational background, morality and culture to consider as well. But that doesn’t explain some of the challenges we face, or the techniques we use, in trying to get it right.

Image 

Here are some of my answers to that question. First, to write any character, I have to think deeply about their psychology and their history. What happened in my character’s life–whether I’m writing a good guy or a bad guy or a victim–that shaped the person my reader will encounter on the page. It’s a lot of wondering and imagining, and it often also involves asking experts my questions. I will talk to psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers about what shapes human behavior, and how a particular kind of damage, or behavior will manifest itself in the adult. Or, conversely, if I have a character who behaves a particular way, I may ask what things in life might have shaped him or her like this.

If I’m writing a young person, I may also talk to a school psychologist. If I’m writing a stalker, as I did in my last Thea Kozak mystery, Stalking Death, I’ll talk to cops, and to victim/witness advocates, as well as to stalking victims.

A casual conversation with a young lawyer in my agent’s office, about the book when I was working on it, led to a quote that went to the center of my character’s dilemma. In Stalking Death, there is a young black student, an outstanding female basketball player, who is being stalked by a male who calls whenever she’s alone in her room. The administration doesn’t believe her, despite some ugly physical items which have been left in her room, and claims she’s doing it to herself, especially once she identifies her stalker as the grandson of a major donor to the school. This makes her even more isolated and frightened because she has no one to turn to for help.The young lawyer I spoke to had been a stalking victim while she was at college, and when she spoke to someone in the administration about the devastating effects of those constant, intrusive phone calls, that sense of invasion and being watched, and how profoundly unsafe she felt and how much it affected her ability to concentrate, he remarked that he didn’t know what she was so upset about. It wasn’t as though the guy had touched her. But oh yes he had–he’d touched her spirit and her sense of security. It was deeply illuminating, and I was able to weave it into the book.

Joe Burgess is the product of a lot of time spent talking to the police. Going on ride-alongs, taking a

Deep in the Canadian woods, viewing the sentinel tree that the killer used to mark the location of Maria Tanasichuk’s body.

citizen’s police academy, taking a police-taught self-defense class, and doing a lot of looking and listening. I’ve sat in the chair across from some very scary police officers and had them ultimately give me the gift of their trust and their confidence. The stories they tell when I’ve stopped being a civilian and an outsider have been instrumental in illuminating Joe. His character first grew out of a story told to me by a Delaware cop over breakfast several years ago. Spending time on interviews, and building trust, has also been instrumental in bringing the people in my true crime books to life.

Creating any character is a process of observation–how do different people speak, how do they move, how do they express their world view. It is also a process of wondering. What shaped them, what are their politics, their religion, how do they relate to others, and what is/was their family like? When I ride down the street with a police officer, I will ask: What are you seeing that I’m not? When I conduct an interview, I will always conclude it by asking: And what are the questions that I should have asked? And when I sit in someone’s office, or at Dunkin’ Donuts or I’m in a store dressing room, I’m looking and listening. How do people dress and move and relate to each other. How do they communicate?

When she was 83, my late mother, A. Carman Clark, published her mystery, The Maine Mulch Murder. She wrote it because she’d complained to the local librarian that either everybody in the mysteries she took out was improbably beautiful and so rich she couldn’t relate to them, or else the books were too violent for a lady in her seventies to enjoy. The librarian said, “Mrs. Clark, if you don’t like what we have to offer, why don’t you go home and write one.” So she did. When she gave the draft to some friends to review, they told her they liked the plot and they like the setting and they liked the characters, but they didn’t believe everyone in a small Maine town spoke like a 7th grade English teacher. She realized she had to start listening, and the book was greatly improved.

I tell my students that the starting point for imagining a character is to think about how the character is like you, then how the character is unlike you, and what do you need to know about them to understand those differences. It’s a lifelong challenge, of course. I learn it. Forget it and have to go relearn it. Because in the end, I want people to feel like they know Joe Burgess. That he’s not generic, or cardboard. He’s a man who struggles to do what’s right, to be honorable, to take care of the little people, and who longs for a more peaceful and normal life. I want you to care. And if I do my job right–you will.